Indy Japan 300
A Third Swig of Milk with My Title Thank You
by Esteban Morales
April 22 , 2006
Helio “Spiderman” Castroneves has become a household name and fan favorite in the world of American openwheel racing. Although Castroneves has competed at the pinnacle of American auto racing for eight years and has managed to carve his face onto the Borg-Warner twice, he has yet to win an elusive top tier championship. His performance in the first third of this season though might just be what the Brazilian needs to propel himself into the revered status of former IndyCar champions. Following a disappointing second to Dan Wheldon in the season opener, Castroneves has overshadowed his opening race performance with two back to back wins; one on the streets of St. Petersburg, and the second at the Indy Japan 300 on the Twin Ring Motegi oval.
After a resurgent start to the season with new Honda power, everything seems to be going Castroneves' way, including the weather. Once the IndyCars were unloaded at the Twin Ring the weather looked pretty bleak and even cancelled qualifying. The grid, however, was set according to series standings, which meant that Castroneves would start from pole. As the Honda NSX pace car sped into pit lane and the green flag dropped Castroneves led the grid into the first turn. Unable to extend his lead in the early going, Castroneves momentarily lost the lead to Dan Wheldon while encountering lapped traffic. Soon after, a lap 27 yellow brought the battle to a halt after Tomas Enge (substituting for Eddie Cheever Jr. who had a Grand-Am commitment) suffered suspension failure and collected Ed Carpenter in the process.
Wheldon led the field into the pits only to lose his lead to a determined Castroneves who rocketed back out onto the track. Just as Castroneves brought Wheldon and the rest to the green, Scott Sharp spun near the tail end of the field; P.J. Chesson and Jeff Simmons (taking over the Ethanol Rahal Letterman car) had to park their cars after making contact with Sharp. The grid finally made it cleanly into turn 1 on lap 53 with Castroneves being eagerly pursued by Wheldon, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Sam Hornish Jr. There was some shuffling at the sharp end of the grid as Kanaan moved around Franchitti for third, and Scott Dixon broke into the top five, but nothing that challenged leader.
Before long Wheldon was the first of the leaders to drop into the pits for a green flag stop on lap 94. Following the cycle Castroneves emerged at the head of the field with Dixon in second and Wheldon back in fifth. By lap 120 Castroneves had a three second advantage over Dixon while Kanaan made an early stop seven laps later because of a deflating Firestone. Meanwhile Wheldon began to drive some very quick laps around the 1.5 mile oval and moved up to third right behind Dixon, his Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate.
Before pitting on lap 149, Dixon put the pressure on Castroneves and threatened to steal the lead on the front stretch. Castroneves managed to hold him off and Dixon soon pealed into the pits where he encountered a terrible pit stop that dropped him one lap behind the leaders. Franchitti also found some misfortune in the pits as he hit his left rear tire changer and fell off the lead lap. Castroneves retained his lead after the third set of stops cycled through and looked to extend his lead when Felipe Giaffone hit the turn 4 SAFER Barrier after losing touch with the racing groove on lap 158. Castroneves brought the grid to a final restart on lap 167 and easily cruised into victory lane in Japan . With his second victory of the season Castroneves extends his points lead over Wheldon, the defending IndyCar Champion. The IRL heads to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 90th running of the greatest spectacle in racing where Castroneves looks to carry his momentum and become a three-time winner with the likes of Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Wilbur Shaw and Louis Meyer.